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Sunday, December 01, 2019

Science Under Siege, Part 6

The climate studies scandal has seriously impacted the public perception of science. Here's how we can put science back on track

T he global warming debate was mildly interesting for a while, and the reports last week of people gluing themselves to the sidewalk to protest the weather (not, presumably, using hot melt adhesive) were amusing. But it's now more religion than science, complete with name-calling, fanaticism, and censorship of opposing views, and it is jeopardizing the reputation of science.

Last week a person named Eric Tien claimed he was deliberately starving himself to death because he thinks global warming is a big problem:

I am willing to starve to death, if that would help initiate real climate action, because I refuse to stand by and allow my nieces and nephews to live through a dark age of starvation, disease, and war. . . . My parents tearfully urged me to stop, but how can I, when Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) models estimate temperatures that would make the planet unlivable?

It sounds like parody. But if this guy is sincere, and people really are martyring themselves in the false belief that the ecosystem is ready to collapse, it's no longer funny. It has gone far enough.

We have known from physics for a long time that doubling atmospheric CO2 will only increase global temperatures by 1.2 to 1.5 degrees. Doubling it again can only produce another 1.2 degree increment. All the other claims made by ecoactivists—mass extinctions, mass deaths, wars, or an ecological collapse—are hypothetical and completely unsubstantiated.

Yet climatologists know their livelihood depends on convincing the government that global warming is a serious problem. No one will ever pay to discover that global warming is not a problem. Climatol­ogists have allowed their field to be turned into an arm of the radical environ­mentalist movement. As a result, the general public is rapidly losing confidence not just in climate studies, but in all science.

The reproducibility crisis

Some years ago, some industry ex-scientists proposed that there was a “reproducibility crisis” in biomedical science, claiming they had been unable to replicate some of the findings in the research literature. I've debunked these claims on numerous occasions. Some of my colleagues take the supposed crisis at face value, and interpret it as a call to strengthen science. But it's not that.

The crisis is not the impure, unreliable reagents that we get from industry, or the ambitious postdocs who fake their results, or the cranks churning out bogus statistics purporting to prove that all research findings are wrong. The crisis is an attack on science itself, motivated by the perception among laymen that it has become political. Anyone who thinks the crisis is salutary should read the recent book Scientocracy to see just how much hostility toward science has grown.

The “reproducibility crisis” is hardly about replication at all; it is a political tool used by people who feel threatened by the claims of environmentalists and others that science backs up their anti-technology and anti-Western ideology. People are seeking weaknesses in science and using them to fight back. This is why we're seeing a resurgence of anti-vaxxers and creationists, not only among the uneducated, but among influential writers like economist David P. Goldman and computer scientist David Gelernter. People even question the Human Genome Project, despite the fact that it led to a revolution in biology.

Many scientists, especially in academia, are blissfully unaware of all of this. They think science is stronger than ever. They need to get out into the real world and observe the phenomenon first-hand.

The funding system is corrupting science

The reward system determines whether the goal is truth or only the appearance of truth. Thus, in medicine, truth is defined by whether something benefits the patient or not. Even here, the decision is fuzzy because of the conflict between survival and quality of life. For example, radiation treatment of brain lymphoma increases survival time from 4 weeks to 4 months, but it also causes leukoencephalopathy, which markedly degrades their quality of life.

If the public decides that science has abandoned its emphasis on truth and so replaced it with greed that they will lie to get more tax money, they will turn against science. It will not take decades for that to happen, and it won't just happen in environmental studies.

Just last week Nature magazine just published a scare article claiming that many irreversible “tipping cascades” might happen unless the government is given more power to avert an “existential threat to civilization” from carbon dioxide. Then, after admitting it also might not happen, they launch into speculative fear-mongering. The article, published in a top science magazine, is unscientific and consists entirely of unsubstantiated opinion. In other words, worthless.

When science gets this far off track, it becomes worthless. Activists have successfully demanded the firing of scientists, even Nobel laureates like Tim Hunt, who challenge their ideological fantasies. To their credit, Richard Dawkins and other biologists protested the attacks. But where are the climate moderates?

What is the solution?

Science is being corrupted by the reward system, and the reward system must be changed to make new knowledge, not funding or papers, the top priority. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Remove science from the universities and put it into research institutes. Salaries of academic scientists these days are paid mostly by the government. This is a massive subsidy to the univers­ities, which uses the money to pay for more bureaucrats. But it also means that scientists no longer need the universities at all. It would be more cost-effective to move research off campus and return universities to their primary goal of teaching.

    I worked in a private research institute for some time, and the key to making them succeed is to run them as parliamentary democracies. If the director or CEO is not helping the science, or if they become dictatorial or interfere with the researchers' academic freedom, the scientists must be able to vote them out and elect new ones.

  2. Alternatively, stop allowing grant funds to pay for salaries. This biases hiring such that new researchers without grants cannot find a position. Even successful senior researchers who happen to enter the job market while between grants find themselves unemployable because the universities insist that the government pay their faculty's salaries through grants.

  3. Eliminate most of the science bureaucracy. The universities have become for-profit enterprises in all but name, run by vast armies of bureaucrats. The NIH will not even talk to researchers anymore, only to other bureaucrats—discussion boards are full of researchers wondering how to find out what's happening with their grants.

    In my last grant only 12.9% of the requested funds were for the research. The rest went to pay my salary, the salary of my staff, and the salary of the bureaucrats at the university. Universities routinely tack on an extra 50% of every grant for themselves. Every academic scientist I know spends most of their time writing grants or doing useless “service” tasks. We are cash cows.

  4. Find a new way of funding science that eliminates the incentive to invent problems for the government to fund. I leave this one for the boffins at the CSR and NSF to figure out.

Perhaps we should also stop explaining science to reporters, many of whom have trouble understanding basic facts. Certainly the practice of “publishing in the press” to generate fake excitement ought to disqualify a researcher from receiving government funding.

Maybe people can suggest alternative reforms. But the conclusion is inescapable that government funding is corrupting science. The climate studies crisis is just the nose under the tent.

Government alone cannot save us from these problems. We must address them together, or they will be addressed for us. Scientists need not take political positions, but they must defend the integrity of science. Unless they do, we will wake up one day to find that discoveries are made elsewhere, our students have all gone to other countries to study, and the term “scientist” is pronounced with a sneer.

dec 01 2019, 4:21 am. edited for brevity dec 03 2019, 2:17 am

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